Hollywood lore has it that someone once asked Thelma Schoonmaker how such a nice lady could edit Martin Scorsese’s violent scenes. Her rather wry reply—“Ah, but they aren’t violent until I’ve edited them.”
Schoonmaker and Scorsese’s professional marriage has outlasted most Hollywood partnerships of any kind. Over 40 years together they have created some of the industry’s most lauded titles across multiple genres, from their collaboration on Raging Bull to the gangster classics Goodfellas and Casino; from the thrillers Shutter Island and Cape Fear to the period pieces Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York (which is arguably also about gangsters). And most recently, the couple partnered on a 3D family fantasy, Hugo.
While it focuses on the story of a young Parisian orphan, Hugo is a thinly veiled valentine to the birth of movies. And, as such, it received a love letter of sorts from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. When the Oscar nominations were announced, Hugo led with a total of 11. Along with nods for Best Picture, Best Director, and various cinematic effects, Thelma Schoonmaker has been nominated for Best Film Editing. Again.
This marks Schoonmaker’s seventh nomination, and if she wins, it will be her fourth statuette. Her earlier Oscars included Raging Bull, The Aviator, and The Departed.
Although she’s a respected industry insider today, Schoonmaker’s road to Hollywood was circuitous if not downright accidental. She was born in Algeria and spent her childhood in Aruba, among other places, finally settling in the U.S. while she was in her teens. She attended Cornell University and studied political science and Russian to prepare for a career in diplomacy. After graduation in the early 60s, however, she changed course when she realized that her personal political views and the policies of the State Department would never mesh.
Needing work, she answered an ad in The New York Times for an assistant film editor; it promised “on the job training.” From there, having discovered an aptitude for editing, Schoonmaker enrolled in a six-week course at NYU, where she met a young filmmaker named Martin Scorsese. A professor suggested they work together.
At this point, I’m tempted to write something like “And Hollywood history was made.” Or “From then on, filmmaking would never be the same.” But, it wasn’t that simple. After their first collaboration (Schoonmaker reportedly “saved” the director’s early movie What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?), they weren’t able to work together again for 12 years. It took Schoonmaker that long to get into the predominantly male Motion Picture Editors Guild.
Once he was able to work with Schoonmaker again on Raging Bull in 1980, Scorsese never used another editor. And the loyalty goes both ways; Schoonmaker has edited only two non-Scorsese-directed films: the documentary Woodstock, prior to their collaboration, and Grace of My Heart (which Scorsese produced). The two were close friends as well as coworkers; Scorsese introduced Schoonmaker to her husband, the late director Michael Powell.
Schoonmaker is credited with innovating many editing techniques, and younger editors study her films carefully. She has also borrowed from more contemporary cinematic arts like MTV music videos and television commercials. Hugo marks her first foray into 3D editing: After more than four decades in the business, she again found herself in an “on the job training” situation. The results, though, are stunning.
As a pioneer in a professional boys’ club, Schoonmaker is often asked whether being a woman helps or hinders film editing. She can be quite modest, insisting that her role is to “get the best of what Marty has laid down.” However, she does admit that there are inherently female traits that contribute to her success. “I think the women have a particular ability to work with strong directors. They can collaborate. Maybe there’s less of an ego battle.”
“I’m not a person who believes in the great difference between women and men as editors,” she has said. “But I do think that quality is key. We’re very good at organizing and discipline, and patience is 50 percent of editing. You have to keep banging away at something until you get it to work. I think women are maybe better at that.”